Gary Speed, the Leeds United and Wales star who seemed to everyone who’d witnessed his talent on and off the pitch to have the football world at his feet, left us seven years ago today. Because of the manner of his leaving, and the universal esteem in which he was held, this is a difficult piece to write, even all these years later.
People have described hearing the shocking news of Gary’s death as a “JFK moment”; you’d always remember where you were and what you were doing when the awful reality fell on your unbelieving ears. As a Leeds United fan, I can remember feeling a cold splash of shock at the back of my neck, a sensation I’ve only had on a mercifully few occasions in my life. Even though Gary had left Elland Road for his boyhood love Everton 15 years before, it was a shattering blow, as it would have been for all of those who supported him in the colours of Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, as well as the fervent ranks of Wales fans. It was so sudden, so unexpected and inexplicable, that a player and manager who seemed to have it all should have died at only 42 years old, and apparently by his own hand.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Gary Speed was loved and admired by just about everyone, fans of his clubs and country, and rival fans alike. Within the game he was revered by his colleagues, team mates, opponents and media operatives, for his likeability and professionalism; he was known as a man without the kind of faults and flaws you so frequently find in young men who have succeeded in their professions at a young age, and who have gone on to become rich and famous. Gary had all that, but he also had a disarming and genial personality that endeared him to those he met in the course of his career. Many were the tears shed, in private and in public too, over the days and weeks following his untimely demise. Nobody who saw it will forget the sight of Shay Given weeping openly after the minutes silence that preceded the Swansea v Aston Villa match only hours after Gary’s death had been announced. Respected reporter Bryn Law, a close friend of Speed, broke down emotionally during a TV interview in which he described his shock and sense of loss. To say that the whole game reeled with the impact of such tragic and unexpected news would not be to overstate the case. Gary’s memory was honoured when Leeds United played Millwall and his fellow midfielders from the 1991–92 title winning side Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gordon Strachan laid wreaths in the centre circle before kick off.
Bewilderment featured high on the list of reactions among those who knew him well, or who had even just known him as a famous footballer. The question of “Why?” has never been completely answered, the inquest stopping short of reaching a verdict of suicide, whilst acknowledging that Gary’s death had been caused by “self suspension”. Several years after Speed’s death, one of the coaches who had been involved with him as a boy footballer, Barry Bennell, was convicted as a serial child sex offender. Speed had been interviewed by police during earlier investigations into Bennell’s behaviour, and had said that he was never harmed by him; the inquest into Speed’s death found no links to Bennell. In February 2018, however, after Bennell’s conviction, an anonymous victim of the coach told Al Jazeera that he had witnessed Speed being abused. It seems unlikely that there will ever be a definitive explanation for the death of a man who had only the previous day conducted himself normally during a BBC Football Focus interview. All we are really left with, even seven years later, is shock, bafflement and a profound sense of loss.
My memories of Gary Speed date from around the time of his Leeds United debut in 1989. He swiftly established himself as far more than just another promising midfielder, with his range of passing, awareness, powerful shot and prodigious ability in the air marked him out as a very special player. He served Leeds United well in a period of success second only to the Don Revie era, and he carried the respect and affection of the Leeds fans with him when he departed for Everton in 1996.
If I had to pick out one particular golden memory of Gary Speed, it would probably be the one so many other United fans mention when asked; the final goal of Leeds United’s 4-0 demolition of promotion rivals Sheffield United at Elland Road towards the climax of both clubs’ successful campaigns. It was a crunch game, with Leeds on the front foot from the start and, with the Whites having established a three goal cushion, Speed was released down the left by an astute Chris Kamara pass. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, outstripping the Blades defence and bearing down on Simon Tracey‘s goal at the Kop end of the ground. “Go on, Gary lad, get one yourself,” were the commentator’s memorable words as Speed unleashed a fine left foot shot just inside the far post to wrap up a comprehensive victory. It’s the stuff of which legends are made, and Gary Speed fits the definition of the word “legend” in every conceivable sense.
Seven years on, all of his fans remember him with affection tinged by the regret of a life well spent but over far too soon. Leeds play Reading tonight, and there will almost certainly be tributes paid to one of the club’s greatest servants – one of those rare players you felt could even have challenged for a place in Don Revie’s Super Leeds outfit.
RIP, Gary Andrew Speed, MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) – still loved, still missed.